While reactions from last week's Rio+20 range from disappointment at the lack of national governmental consensus to optimism at the range and success of local governmental and corporate actions, none of this alters the fact that climate change is a slow-moving disaster that is going to change our economies and lifestyles.
Fortunately, smart grid technologies and policies can address both developed and developing world challenges in reducing greenhouse gas emission (GHG) while eliminating energy poverty with green energy sources.
Let's first examine the impacts of climate change in one state, California, which is the ninth largest developed economy in the world. The California Energy Commission (CEC) produces the annual Integrated Energy Policy Report to "develop energy policies that conserve resources, protect the environment, ensure energy reliability, enhance the state's economy, and protect public health and safety." Climate change is a threat to every one of those objectives.
For instance, California’s Sierra Mountain snowpack delivers almost 10% of the state’s electricity plus supplies the annual water needs for 65% of the residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural users. As the climate warms up, we might get the same amount of precipitation, but it will not be in the convenient water storage format called snow; it will be rain. California lacks the catchment assets to store this, having been accustomed over the past 150 years to nature taking care of this for us.
A reduction in snow melt means a reduction in a steady flow of water and therefore impacts the predictable ability to create hydro electricity as well as provide water for human use. And of course, any changes in water supply for residential to agricultural consumption also require a significant investment in energy to pump, move, and treat water. Currently, 19% of the state’s electricity is consumed in water supply or treatment applications. Re-configuring the system to move and treat water will probably require increased energy. California has to find alternative and green sources of electricity production, and produce more electricity to accommodate these changes wrought by a transforming climate.
Next page: Cumulative benefits of energy efficiency, integrating renewables
There are indirect impacts as well. There will be an increase in the number of peak electricity days due to hot temperatures. A recent UCLA study revealed that for southern California, average temperatures will rise by 3 to 5 degrees. California utilities already report that peaks are getting "peakier", meaning the demand is increasing when temperatures rise, stressing existing grid facilities to supply power for all users in compressed time periods. California utilities must find ways to intelligently manage their distribution grids to minimize these stressor conditions or see increased disruptions of supply to consumers.
Climate changes will cause California and other western states to experience the energy and water yin/yang relationship most acutely, but no state is immune.
So what can the smart grid do to address climate change? The smart grid can't stop climate change, but it does support mitigation and adaptation strategies that are being studied by the CEC and other California agencies as well as other states and nations.
For example, aggressive integration of clean renewable sources of electricity generation to replace fossil fuels that spew greenhouse gases (GHGs) will slow or mitigate the rate of climate change. Many energy efficiency measures such as technology improvements that reduce electricity consumption in appliances and electronics have important cumulative effects to reduce overall loads on the grid. Weatherization programs reduce the electricity requirements to heat and cool buildings. And smart grid technologies and policies can also support adaptation measures -- including solutions that create a new class of consumers called prosumers that can produce/consume both kilowatts and negawatts of electricity.